Review — “The Green Roads of England” — R Hippisley Cox

The Green Roads of EnglandThe Green Roads of England

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable little book, made more interesting by describing  areas local to me. Because I am local, I think I enjoyed the books a little more than a reader with no local knowledge might. I note this as the last couple of chapters — where the roads discussed were in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and east, and in Gloucester and north — weren’t quite as interesting to me as the early chapters, which centered around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset — the Wessex Ridgeway is closer to my interests than the roads to the east. If you don’t know any of the areas discussed in the book, you might find it all a bit overwhelming, as names of towns and villages and roads and hill forts tumble in succession — especially as there are few detailed maps within the text to act as a guide.

I feel maps are what the book sorely lacked. Yes, there are a few summary maps at the end of the book, but these aren’t large enough in scale to highlight details discussed in the book. The text is illustrated with pencil sketches of local countryside and plans of hill forts, but these felt superfluous. Yes, the hill forts might be important in helping assess the route of the old roads, but in a book that was short of maps, the sketches and plans seemed an unnecessary frivolity that diverted from useful cartography, no matter how basic.

I haven’t been able to find much about Hippisley Cox on the Web, so I don’t know his standing as an expert on roads, trackways or archeology; and a comment in the last chapter leads me to think he was an enthusiastic amateur. The interesting hypothetical tidbits he tosses into early chapters might, therefore, be entirely unfounded — however, they are, nonetheless, intriguing, and accord with some recent thoughts of my own.

If you are intrigued by roads, byways, and tracks, there’s much of interest in this book, particularly if you’re a native of, or a regular visitor, to the areas which Hippisley Cox describes. Was Avebury the hub of the southern, prehistoric road network? I’m still unsure, but it was fun to retrace some old routes.

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Review – “Total Man” – Stan Gooch

Total ManTotal Man by Stan Gooch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the one of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition. This was so long I started it last year and only finished this year!]

When I first read this back in 1977, I remember finding it interesting – but this time it has been most dull. And long! At nearly 600 pages, it could easily have been much (much) shorter. Back then, this would have been one of my first introductions to psychology, and  popular science, and it was also full of notions that seemed novel and interesting: essentially explaining “The Divided Self” as instantiated in brain structures and through them in culture, left hand and right hand, female and male, psychotic and neurotic, conscious and subconcious; a lot of polarities compared and contrasted (but with many fuzzy bits pruned).

Reading it this time, however, in a less innocent and more critical mode, I couldn’t help noticing quite how ridiculously speculative it all is, with lots of “if this is the case”, “if we were to suppose”, “if we can conclude”. If you ignore the hypothetical nature of the claims and just focus on the claims generated by the hypotheticals, it can all seem quite plausible, but the long chains of inferences seems a little weak to carry the bridge across the Gulf of Possible Nonsense.

As to the hypothetical nature of the arguments, you will find (opening the book at random) chains of sentences like this: “This is probably a serious misconception”… “was probably after all first on the scene”…. “Is it not far more likely“… “This is perhaps yet one of the further meanings”… “To generalise at this point”… “This claim is somewhat borne out”… “the difference may be perceived” “For reasons …by no means entirely clear“… “the possible exceptions to this statement”… “one has suggested…” (My italics) Webs of speculation feed into mazes of conjecture that terminate in knots of problematic conclusions. Because the conclusions rest upon so many interlinked hypotheticals, I began to find myself asking, “but what if it isn’t likely, or probable, or not borne out at all”, and so on.

The book is also structured in a way that hinders reading. Footnotes abound, but these are often additional speculations or clarifications associated with points just made. Many, many of these could have been added within the flow of the text, and in some cases might have helped the argument. As it was, I found myself breaking the flow of reading to jump to another point, and then having to regain my rhythm. Additionally, almost out of the blue, towards the end of the books and after spending 500 pages  describing Systems A and B — their polarity, their links, their conflicts, their associations with psychology — System C pops up. That a System C should exist after the previous speculations kind of makes sense — a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of A and B. But there has been little to prepare the reader for this kind of synthesis, although, of course, it explains the Total Man of the title. Yet, one also feels that this is also a way to marry Gooch’s theories with other world views involving trinities, which couldn’t be ignored if as he used culture, religion and literature as evidence.

The book also became vehicle for other pet theories of Gooch’s that appeared in later books. One is tempted to think that he wanted to get these ideas out in some form in case he never got another book deal. For example, there is a very (very) long section on the differences and conflicts between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that takes up nearly eighty pages — and yet by the end of it I had lost the thread of Gooch’s argument. This conflict was to become the subject of his “The Neanderthal Question” (and other later books). Similarly, there’s a short (and, again, confusing) section on probability and chance (when discussing the I Ching) that he expanded in his “The Paranormal” to even more confusing effect.

The book isn’t entirely without merit, and introduced me, 40 years ago, when I was young and not so widely-read, to a lot topics and notions. But it is a slog, and it is not well-structured, so come prepared for the long knitting session involved in handling the skein of suppositions.

Review – “Antic Hay” – Aldous Huxley

Antic HayAntic Hay by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Antic Hay, but found its second half better than its first. The novel starts slowly, and when the protagonist, Gumbril, meets his intellectual and arty friends in London and thus introduces us to them, I almost despaired. Certainly, Huxley was a bright and intelligent young thing, and his friends certainly would also have been intelligent and intellectual and arty. However, when somebody tries to capture the essence of such situations they inevitably fall flat – what is charming, witty, intense and clever when you’re twenty-three, drunk and an Oxbridge graduate, can sound rather fey, precious and irritating when you’re sober and went to a red-brick university (or none at all!).

The novel is essentially plotless and episodic, but in the second half the episodes become more connected, and at last Huxley starts talking about people, real people, or at least the kind of people I might know. People who have relationships, and succeed or fail at them. The cyphers begin to develop into characters. Yes, it’s still a satire on the kind of people in the Bloomsbury set, but it begins to have more feeling, and I could empathise with characters.

In many ways this books is similar to Crome Yellow. But it is perhaps too long. There was a feeling that wheels were spinning a bit too much at the beginning. If this book had been as short as Crome Yellow, and had concentrated more on character development, then it might have been as entertaining as Crome Yellow.

Nonetheless, it was entertaining enough to keep me reading, and picked up just at the right point to prevent me dropping it.

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Review – “The Private Future” – Martin Pawley

The Private FutureThe Private Future by Martin Pawley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the first of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition.]

When Martin Pawley died in 2008, obituaries were quick to latch onto the seeming far-sightedness of The Private Future. This book of “social prophecy”, The Guardian said, provided evidence of “how penetrating Pawley’s vision could be”. It was, for The Independent “one of his prescient books”. Published in hardback in 1973, the paperback edition of 1974 has emblazoned on the front cover, “With all the force of FUTURE SHOCK” in an attempt to ride the coat tails of Toffler’s publishing wonder, a serious book of cultural analysis that became an international best-seller. The paperback of Pawley’s book was soon remaindered, however; I picked it up in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in 1976 or so.

The book contends that individuals in Western culture are becoming more private. People are becoming islands unto themselves as family and community broke down. What was the cause of this breakdown? Here, the book becomes less prescient, and instead fits into a general pattern of cultural analysis of the fifties and sixties. Among the causes are, of course, consumerism, and the rise of popular culture and the media that carried that culture – cinema, television and radio. “Can these shoals of anonymous commuters,” he wonders, “fed on sports reports and salacious advertising really be called communities? Are these thinly populated, fenced-off brick boxes really the homes of families? Do ten or twenty million of them amount to a society? Surely not.” (p.8) The tenor is very 1970s: “shoals of anonymous commuters”, “fenced off brick boxes”, “sports reports and salacious advertising” – against popular culture, against space, light and suburban homes for the masses, and reducing people to anonymous “shoals”.

Although The Guardian might regard Pawley as “prescient”, his critique is of the extant society, the future he foresaw was very much his now. The conditions for the private future were already there – the future would merely bring further privatisation and the withering of community. This is not a vision for now. As Pawley notes “The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years… ” (p.16). And the society these changes have brought about – in which families have become smaller as children leave home and elders move to retirement homes or nursing homes, in which there are no connections with shop assistants, because ” with modern objects like fridges and freezers, [there is] no need to visit shops as often” – is the society Pawley is describing in the 1970s.

The book itself is rather slim, 200 pages in the paperback edition, and is more polemic than penetrating analysis. There is no bibliographic information, and few references to other sociologists or hard data; the book stands or falls on the basis of Pawley’s insights, rather than evidence adduced from other sources. The books rambles somewhat – for example, because of the concentration on consumerism as a facet of privatisation, there is anti-capitalist rant, yet this somehow feels shoe-horned into the argument. The book is also sometimes contradictory – for example, you might wonder if Pawley desires the private future, rather than being against it. And is he for or against freedom and emancipation? You would think he would be for both things. Yet he rails against the washing machines and fridges that enable women more free time (and thus to work and to become politically involved) because they do not require somebody (usually, in the 1960s, a wife) to visit shops, or otherwise be involved in the community.

How prescient, then, was Pawley? How penetrating was his vision? Interestingly, both The Guardian and The Independent were making their comments after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen <i>then</i> quite the power of the social networks </>now</i>? It was easy to concentrate on headphones and the Walkman and the iPod, and view them as symbols of self-sufficiency, of inwardness, of privatisation. And yet, even then, we were already 30 years on from Pawley’s book. Some elements of those notions might have been true. Yet the idea that there were no longer communities, families or other social groupings seems a little misplaced. Certainly, some types of community might have declined – trades unions certainly, the nuclear family to an extent – yet, even in the mid-2000s, other communities had developed, some internet-based (chatrooms, newsgroups), some around media and popular culture (people sharing discussions at work about television programs), some around formal and informal groupings in the real world (membership of the National Trust, for example). With more leisure time (because of those fridges and washing machines) came more time to appreciate nature, or history, or architecture, and to develop local communities based around these pursuits.

All of the above are, I feel, still true. Technology, capitalism, the individualist drive within us, the desire for freedom and liberation might well lead to the decline of some forms of community, but these things also lead to the growth of new communities and the re-organisation of others. The drive to feel part of a community, to be shaped by a community, to take part in community is still there within us, and is now partly driven by social media. Yes, this media is currently divisive, but it enables the creation of communities and cultures that shape and are shaped by us. Yes, it creates echo chambers, but what are these but the reflections of particular communities that still exist “out there” IRL, as we used to say (lol). And, yes, we might interact <i>in private</i> with the devices that enable these communities, as private individuals, but community still exists in these new forms, through these media, just as family continues to exist in new,  changed and sometimes radical, forms.

Reading The Private Future forty years on is not, then, to rediscover a hidden classic that explains the world as it is now. It is a book that attempted to explain some aspects of the world as it was then, a book that seemed unsure if it wanted to stop the process it foresaw or celebrate it. It is, however, in its own, dated, way, an interesting read. It is now a history of the way some aspects of the world once were, and might have become – a retro what-if for a world that quickly changed after the book was written to become something else, somewhere else with different people in it.

A two star review may seem paltry, but in the Goodreads world, that means I thought “it was Ok”.  And if you are interested in sociology, cultural studies, history or politics, and discover this book second-hand, pick it up. You might find yourself intrigued by what it was saying about the private then.

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Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was a prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review – “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange LandStranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’m not going to write a long review, there will be plenty enough on Goodreads, Amazon and all over the Web. This is my second time reading it, and I still thought it was fun and interesting enough to get three stars. Yes, it’s sexist, and yes, its writing style is not “literature” – but then, it was written for teenage boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose ideas of witty repartee would have been informed by 1940s detective movies on the television, gumshoes and newspaper men whose women knew their place.

And yet, there are enough ideas in the novel to turn a young boy’s (and girl’s) mind upside down and around about and set them all akimbo. Telepathy and telekinesis, and a man from Mars; older wiser, civilisations with mighty intellectual powers and wisdom; free love, and a lot of nakedness; criticism of religion while inventing a religion that is not a religion, and managing to confuse itself over the subject of religion, and whether God exists, whether there are immortal souls, and so on.

It’s not a great book, in the sense of great literature. But it’s fun, if a little tendentious, and perhaps a little preachy towards the end. However, there’s plenty there to set inquisitive young minds a-roaming, and more than enough that was, for the time, exciting, shocking and new.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]